A director’s chair folds from side to side, holding the full weight of the user. Not just their body, but the dreams of a career in cinema that is about to be realized before the world. What’s even more profound: how many of those chairs are occupied by women of color this year, many in their feature debuts.
Regina King has been at the forefront of the discussion with her first feature, “One Night in Miami,” from Amazon Studios. She’s looking to become the seventh Black director nominated for an Oscar, following in the footsteps of the late John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood”), Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) and Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”), who is also in the conversation for “Da 5 Bloods.” After winning her fourth Emmy, for HBO’s “Watchmen” — making her the second-most-awarded Black woman in Emmy history — King is one of the top contenders in the director race and the front-runner for the DGA Award for first-time feature.
No Black woman has ever been nominated in the director category at the Oscars. This year that could change. Just look at the encouraging number of films that are set to qualify.
Liesl Tommy is transitioning from the stage to the screen with the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” starring Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) in the lead role.
Radha Blank is impeccably savvy and brilliant in Netflix’s “The 40-Year-Old Version,” which she wrote, directed and stars in — and she could be a dark-horse contender for original screenplay. More projects could be coming Blank’s way.
Channing Godfrey Peoples helmed the marvelous “Miss Juneteenth,” which stars Nicole Beharie and delivers the story of the Black American dream with attentiveness and appreciation. With George Floyd and Black Lives Matter still on the minds of Americans, Oscar voters could respond — if enough of them get to the film on the Academy streaming platform.
On the outside looking in at the moment are Gina Prince-Bythewood, who elevates the action genre with “The Old Guard” and Stella Meghie, who infuses Universal Pictures’ “The Photograph” with sensitivity and romance. And “Farewell Amor,” from Ekwa Msangi, has been making the regional festival rounds following Sundance and could gain momentum.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented various challenges for filmmakers who debuted their movies at the Sundance Film Festival but still needed to finish tasks like coloring or sound mixing, or just needed to finish their films, period. Chloé Zhao, who produced, adapted and directed “Nomadland,” also had to edit and complete the film during lockdown. The Searchlight Pictures release has received outstanding reviews at the fall festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award. Zhao could be the first Asian woman to receive a director nomination if things continue to go her way.
Zhao isn’t the only Asian filmmaker in the awards conversation. Lee Isaac Chung’s beautifully intimate “Minari” from A24 is a touching tribute to his family and could hit a sweet spot with audiences and voters. The film also presents an opportunity for star Steven Yeun to be nominated, making him just the third actor of Asian descent to be tapped in the lead category, following Oscar winners Yul Brynner (“The King and I”) and Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi,” though he was also nominated for “House of Sand and Fog”).
With so many strong contenders this year, it’s a real possibility that the Oscars’ director category could include at least two female nominees — a first in the 93-year history of the Academy Awards. A record number of Black filmmakers might even make the lineup, including George C. Wolfe for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Shaka King for “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
The DGA’s first-time feature category is a litmus test for debut filmmakers perhaps breaking into the best picture and director races. The guild introduced the award in 2015 and has previously recognized Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”), Garth Davis (“Lion”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), Bo Burnham (“Eighth Grade”) and most recently Alma Har’el (“Honey Boy”), the first woman to win the prize. Peele is the only one to have crossed over to the Academy’s director race; though he lost, he walked away with an original screenplay statuette, in addition to being nominated as a producer. What happens in this DGA category could serve as a telling sign for one of the year’s female auteurs.